Roping in Ranch Horse Competitions

Roping in Ranch Horse Competitions

Mike Major sets up each run for success. It's a mix of extensive roping practice at home and positioning a cow in the show pen for the ideal shot.

Raised On It and Mike Major in senior ranch cow work at the 2022 VRH World

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The American Quarter Horse Journal logo

By Sara Gugelmeyer

World champion Versatility Ranch Horse competitor, horse trainer, cowboy and former professional roper Mike Major says it is important to have a plan and set yourself up for success when roping in ranch horse competition.

Ranch Cow Work: How It's Scored

In AQHA’s ranch cow work classes:

  • Exhibitors in the open and cowboy divisions must box the cow, turn it both directions on the fence, then rope it.

  • Amateur and youth exhibitors have the option of circling the cow in the middle of the arena in both directions in lieu of roping.

  • An amateur or youth exhibitor may circle or rope the cow but cannot combine the two to get credit for this portion of the run.

  • For shows conducted in international countries, the exhibitor has the option of circling the cow each direction instead of roping or breakaway roping and wearing traditional attire of the country.

To rope the cow, the exhibitor must be carrying a rope when the run starts.

  1. The exhibitor may pull up after the fence work, take down the rope and proceed to rope and stop the cow.

  2. The exhibitor must then rope the cow and bring it to a stop.

  3. Two throws are permitted and the horse will be judged on two maneuvers: tracking/rating and stopping the cow.

  4. It is not necessary that the exhibitor catch to receive a score in the roping portion.

The catch is legal as long as the cow looks through the loop and the rope pulls tight on any part of the animal’s body except the tail. The rope may be tied on or dallied. If the exhibitor does not catch, the horse will be given credit for tracking and rating and will be assessed the appropriate penalty per AQHA Rule SHW563.2.

Roping Practice

It's important that the rider already be comfortable roping at home and can rope the cow from any position in the arena or on the cow.

“Practice being able to rope in any place,” Mike says. “You want to feel comfortable with the rope in your hand. You need to be comfortable swinging your loop and be able to throw it in any direction.”

To accomplish that, Mike suggests extensive roping practice at home. But, once in the show pen, Mike has a way of setting up the cow to increase his chances of catching.

Setting Up for Success

To set up the cow properly to rope, Mike makes two fence turns, then takes his rope down. He begins building a loop.

“I am going to swing my loop right when I take it down and make sure it feels balanced and feels good,” Mike says. “A lot of people won't swing their rope until they are ready to rope and then it feels bad to them and they wish they had a different balance to it but it's too late.”

Letting his horse trot after the cow, away from the cow gate, Mike sets the cow up as though he were going down the fence to make another turn. But instead of driving the cow past the middle, he rates at the cow’s hip until the cow turns her head and begins coming off the fence. That’s when Mike takes his shot.

“Ninety-five percent of the time, when I step in behind it, that cow is going to come off the fence,” Mike explains. “Instead of having to really get a lot of dip in your rope, you can just throw a big loop over there and the cow runs into it.”

“The key is controlling the cow's eye.”

After completing two fence turns, Mike takes his rope down and swings his loop, ensuring it's balanced.

Mike rates at the cow's hip, waiting for the cow to turn back to the right.

The cow turns to the right, giving Mike his shot.


Mike positions his horse straight behind the cow for the stop so the pull on the horse is straightforward, allowing for a better stop.

Be Ready and Take the Shot

It's important to be ready to rope when the cow presents the opportunity, Mike says.

“That cow is going to give you about six strides where his head is over there,” he says. “A lot of people will sit back there with their rope, then they'll run to the cow, start swinging, and all the setup that they've done is blown. When you start kicking your horse up there in position, you need to be swinging hard so when that cow comes off the fence, you're ready to rope.”

Mike acknowledges that there are always exceptions and that the cow might dictate how it is going to happen more than the rider. Occasionally, the cow will come off the fence and turn hard to the right, which can be challenging. To prepare for this, practice swinging the rope while loping circles to the right.

“If you get used to roping to the right, left, whatever, your muscle memory is just the same no matter which way you are going,” Mike says. “Wherever a cow is, you ought to be able to swing a loop and rope.”

Cows Who Don’t Want to Leave the Fence

Another possibility is that the cow gets numb and doesn't want to come off the fence.

“If the cow just stays on the fence, my swing changes,” Mike says. “When one's coming off the fence, it's more of a sidearm – I am just going to throw a loop across there that's just going to let that cow run into it.”

But for a cow that sticks on the fence, Mike says, “When I get up behind the cow, I am just going to put a lot more dip in my rope.”

Mike emphasizes that he prefers to go to the right, and partly because if the cow doesn't come off the fence, he still has a shot at roping it.

“If you are right-handed and you are going counterclockwise around the arena, the fence is going to be in the way,” Mike says.

Stopping the Cow

Finally, once Mike gets the cow roped, he jerks the slack and tracks up on the cow until the horse and cow are facing the same direction.

“I don't want my horse to take that jerk coming off to the side,” Mike says. “I want my horse straight behind that cow and then I'll stop it, so the jerk on my horse will be straightforward, which allows for a better stop. (A jerk from the side) will throw him off balance.”

Try and Try Again

If the first loop doesn't work out, Mike says, “It's important to set it up again.

“That's my best chance at getting it roped, so I will keep my horse tracking up to it and set it up the same way again.”